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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

Stupid Praise

Mark Lotto, i.e. the voice of sanity.

Book reviewers, on the other hand, have had no trouble making up their minds about Indecision. The Gray Lady fawned over Kunkel, 32, like a loving grandmother. In the daily New York Times, Michiko Kakutani actually reviewed Indecision from the point of view of Holden Caulfield ("Old Dwight’s book really knocked me out"). That weekend, the Times Book Review published a front-page rave by 1980s wunderkind Jay McInerney–as if the title of Spokesman for a Generation could be handed down like the Miss America crown. Two weeks later, the Book Review published Kunkel’s 4,000-word essay about novelists and terrorists on the same Sunday that the Times Magazine ran an adoring profile of Kunkel and the other founding editors of the literary magazine n+1. Kunkel was identified as "the hot young white male writer of the moment." By favorably comparing Dwight and Holden, n+1 and the Partisan Review, Kunkel and Goethe, Kunkel and Joyce, these Times pieces worked hard to establish the new author’s pedigree, his literary bona fides, like a royal genealogist rubber-stamping the pure bloodlines of a new prince. Each article was accompanied by a photo of Kunkel smiling shyly, or brooding prettily.

"Writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise," daydreams critic James Wood in the current issue of n+1. We are already familiar with the victims of stupid praise. Especially talented, especially lucky or especially well-publicized writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith were cooed over, profiled, proclaimed originals, made stars. Surely, these young authors–all of them, like Kunkel, with talents worth developing–would have benefited more from intelligent and productive hostility than from the advertising campaigns they were given by critics. Predictably, their follow-ups were greeted with idiotic hostility. This cycle of hype and backlash unquestionably fails writers. Faulkner wrote three not-great books before he wrote The Sound and the Fury; these days he’d only have gotten to write the first two. But don’t worry too much about Kunkel. Indecision’s film rights were sold for seven figures to producer Scott Rudin, who’s also working on movie adaptations of The Corrections and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. One Book Too Many? Errr . . . yeah. Machiko Kakutani’s book review of Indecision by n + 1 founding editor Benjamin Kunkel is extremely strange. If I’m not...
  2. Some of it is just plain stupid I’d say that the Richard Posner article on media in The New York Times is about 50/50. Fifty percent of it says intelligent things that...
  3. In Praise of Big Books A few posts back I wrote about the virtues of short stories. Now I’d like to go in the opposite direction and write a little...
  4. Praise for Anchor Book of Short Stories Well, we know that Charles McGrath did not like the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, but it appears that Salon.com’s Priya Jain does....

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3 comments to Stupid Praise

  • Grant

    In many if not most cultures the story tellers are the keepers of the narrative, and celebrity has always been part of that, with all of its blessings and pitfalls. Instead of an either/or of unquestioned praise and ‘hostile’ reviews, how about just realistic. Indecision is a fine book, interesting, worth reading; it’s not going to make it into the canon as the peer of the finest Joyce or Lessing. Kunkel may or may not have that book in him–but it would be great if he did.

  • I think Lotto’s review was pretty realistic. He praised the book for what it did well, but found it wanting in the end.
    And I do have to agree that the Times went overboard with their Kunkel coverage.

  • The last time I remember the Times cooing so overtly, the subject was Chaing Rae-Lee and it turned out he’s an occasional golf buddy of Charles McGrath.

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